Last week on a three-on-two fast-break drill during an Orlando Magic practice, Grant Hill filled the lane and finished with a dunk. This shouldn't have been especially notable; after all, Hill is 6'8", and he's been jamming half his life. Still, the flush touched off quite the impromptu celebration. His teammates applauded, his coaches whooped, and Hill took off on a victory lap around the court, grinning all the way. Streamers and confetti did not fall from the rafters, but they might as well have. "It wasn't a great dunk," Hill said afterward, "but"--he paused for effect--"it was a dunk." ¬∂ To understand why a very tall man dunking a basketball would be remarkable, one must first appreciate what Hill has been through: the five left-ankle surgeries in four years; the thousands of hours doing water aerobics alongside senior citizens; the electro-stimulator machine he wore to bed every night, promising his wife, Tamia, that he would let it vibrate for only half an hour; the clamor in Orlando that he abandon his comeback so that the Magic, like heartbroken lovers, could move on and find someone new; and most of all, the chilling day a year and a half ago when he was taken into the hospital on a stretcher, delirious, Tamia fearing for his life, after he developed a dangerously high fever in reaction to the latest surgery. After all that, it's clear why the 32-year-old Hill's rising above the rim and throwing down for the initial time this season (he got his first dunk in a game only last Saturday, against the Philadelphia 76ers) was an inspiring sight, another step in a comeback that Orlando coach Johnny Davis calls "a minor miracle."
Yes, injuries may have rendered Hill relatively hopless, but reserve your sympathy for those who have to guard him: In remarkably short order the rest of his game has returned to All-Star form. Through Monday, Hill was averaging 20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists and had led the surprising Magic to an 8--5 start. Relying on midrange jumpers and a first step as quick as ever, he'd already regained his stature as one of the toughest small forwards to cover. "He looks the same to me, though his jump shot's probably a little better," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks.
"He's playing like he took a month off, not four years," says a scout who saw Hill play recently. Adds Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, whose team Hill torched for 28 points on Nov. 20, "It is a great story."
In fact there is something of a Grant Hill love-in raging across the league, his tale of perseverance serving as a welcome counterpoint to the Nov. 19 melee in Detroit between Pistons fans and certain Pacers. Hill is Everything That Is Right with the NBA. So he receives a line of well-wishers before games, a steady stream of shoulder bumps (an NBA player's equivalent to sending flowers) from opponents and cheers from enemy crowds. "Even in Philly," Hill says incredulously. For those players who were kids when Hill was starring with the Pistons, his return is particularly exciting--like finding out that, four years after it went off the air, Seinfeld is coming back.
"I remember watching him at Duke, and I saw his first points with Detroit," said 23-year-old forward Darius Miles in the Portland locker room after an 89--83 win at Orlando on Nov. 24. "And you know what? He's still faster than a mother------!"
"Grant Hill," chimed in 23-year-old forward Zach Randolph, "is the Truth!"
"The Truth!" seconded Miles, fairly throwing up his hands in hallelujah.
"It's amazing," weighed in forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a relatively grizzled veteran, at 28, from across the room. "Think of what he did before he even got to Orlando--that's a great career for a lot of guys. A lot of people would have packed it in."
That brings up a very good question: Why didn't Hill pack it in? He has millions in the bank; a beautiful wife who's a four-time Grammy nominee; a two-year-old daughter, Myla; and the beginnings of several postbasketball careers, including real estate developer and art collector. "That is the question, isn't it?" says former Magic general manager John Gabriel, now a Portland scout, shaking his head. "And I don't know the answer, other than to say it's the same thing that makes him such a good person."
the first injury was a broken left ankle in the opening round of the 2000 playoffs. During the regular season Hill had averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the Pistons and drawn comparisons with Michael Jordan (ill-fitting) and Magic Johnson (more like it). Doctors inserted a three-hole plate and five screws to support the bone. That summer Detroit moved Hill in a sign-and-trade; Orlando took on his cap-munching seven-year, $93 million contract. The Magic was replacing its squad of scrappers with a two-star system: Hill and Tracy McGrady. Four games into his Orlando career, Hill began to suffer extreme pain. So he had his second operation, in which a piece of bone from his hip was grafted to his ankle.
When bone spurs inflamed the joint, Hill had surgery number 3 in December 2001. A year later he played 29 solid games before soreness forced him to shut it down again. Doctors discovered a new crack, and in March 2003 Hill went to Dr. James Nunley at Duke for surgery number 4. Nunley took out all the screws, broke Hill's heel and removed a wedge of bone to relieve pressure on the ankle. He solidified the joint with a new plate and five four-inch screws.
A week later, recuperating at home in Orlando, Hill became cold while watching TV. "He'd been having some night sweats, so we figured his body was just working out the toxins," says Tamia. She brought blankets, but his teeth kept chattering. Tamia took his temperature: 104°. She tried another thermometer: 104.5°. "That's when I started to worry," she says.
By the time Tamia got Grant to the hospital, he was incoherent. Doctors met him with a stretcher and had to restrain him in the ER. "I was losing it, just bawling," says Tamia. "At that point it wasn't about basketball anymore. It was about keeping him around. It put everything into perspective."
Like a piece of Scotch tape pulled off and reapplied one too many times, Hill's skin was no longer holding together. The incision on his ankle hadn't healed, and he had developed a staph infection. Hill underwent a seven-hour surgery in which doctors grafted skin and muscle from his left triceps to patch up his ankle. (Look at the arm today, and you'll see a long, slightly raised scar, as if someone had dug a divot down to his elbow, then tried to pack the dirt back in.) For two months he took thrice-daily intravenous doses of vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic. "After going through that, it was, like, I have to come back now," says Hill. "Part of me was, like, Is it worth it? But then I decided I'd been through too much not to give it one last try. It made me realize I had to get this thing right. I had to get healthy."
This time Hill didn't rush it. He headed back to the pool, where he and Magic forward Pat Garrity, who was rehabbing from a right-knee injury, swam laps and did range-of-motion exercises. For motivation Hill read the stories of others, from Abe Lincoln and Lance Armstrong. ("I know [Armstrong's] story so well, I feel like I know him," says Hill.) Although cleared to play last spring, he waited. Then, this summer, he sent a message to new Magic G.M. John Weisbrod: Come to Duke. "It was two-on-two, three-on-three against guys like Corey Maggette, Shane Battier, Elton Brand," Weisbrod says of the workouts in Durham. "Grant hadn't played basketball in four years, and he was dominant." Even though Weisbrod says he was "giddy behind closed doors," he didn't let on in public, keeping in mind the fans, who felt as if they were stuck in a cycle of raised hopes and inevitable disappointment. Call it GrantHog Day.
It's hard to blame them. Management had promised a new era of stardom and success--Shaq and Penny II--but by last season's end Orlando was the NBA's worst team (21--61); coach Doc Rivers had been run out of town; columnists were referring to McGrady as Me-Mac; and the team was playing to half-full arenas. There was talk of Hill's being left unprotected in the expansion draft (Weisbrod says it was never seriously discussed) and of the team's buying out his contract. To many kids around town Hill was so unknown that they would peer up at him and ask, "Do you play basketball?"
Now he's back, and the question inevitably is, for how long? The best sign for Orlando is that Hill, who two years ago called ice "my best buddy," no longer straps on the bags, even after games. "I figure I've done enough icing in the last four years to last a lifetime," he says. While Hill claims he doesn't think about his injury during games, Weisbrod admits that "my cellphone rings whenever he makes a grimace on TV."
The ankle itself is a sight to behold, permanently swollen and discolored, like a piece of fruit gone bad. Curving, serrated scars rise from below Hill's hightops, reaching up his shin. "I used to wear high socks and cover up the scars," says Hill. "Now I'm, like, it's who I am, it's what I've been through. If people want to stare at it and it looks ugly, I couldn't care less."
there are those who believe that Hill's injuries had a silver lining. "He matured as a person," Tamia says. "It was the first time in his career that something was taken from him." Weisbrod agrees: "In a lot of weird ways all that adversity has made him a better player, certainly a better leader."
Hill, a slasher in his Detroit days, has modified his game, partly out of necessity and partly by design. Whereas he used to attack the basket, now he pulls up short for a soft jumper or a leaner, often coming off curls in the Magic's 1--4 motionlike offense. The midrange jump shot, never his forte, is now his primary weapon; at times he looks Rip Hamiltonesque. "He can create space against anyone," says Garrity. "He gets guys on their heels and then pops up."
Hill says he learned his new style--think of a power pitcher suddenly relying on splitters and changeups--from watching Jordan become a more efficient player by using angles and improving his jump shot. "He got crafty as he got older," Hill says of Jordan. He smiles. "I like crafty."
Crafty or not, what is striking about Hill is the way he moves. On back-to-back plays against Portland he raced out and got behind Abdur-Rahim for layups. Against Indiana four nights earlier he sprinted the length of the floor to intercept a pass and, in the same motion, passed the ball behind his back to a trailing teammate to start a fast break, a play so beautifully timed that it looked choreographed. True, Hill can't really jump yet--it's weird to see him rooted to the floor as opponents sky for rebounds--but levitation is one of many gifts he's on his way to regaining, along with explosiveness, lateral movement, and the ability to quick-jump for rebounds and front in the post. "It's like an onion," he says. "I'm peeling back the layers as I rediscover my game."
In large part because of Hill's play, the Magic is being touted as a contender in the Eastern Conference. This adds a nice element to the Return of Grant saga, but there's one problem: It's not quite true. The team has a nice young mix with rookie forward Dwight Howard, point guard Steve Francis and swingmen Hedo Turkoglu and Cuttino Mobley, but there's not enough depth and experience for Orlando to be an elite team. That much is evident whenever Hill goes out of the game; suddenly the offense grinds to a halt. Still, compared with last season's, it is a vastly improved squad, largely because of Hill's unexpected presence.
Which brings us back to the question: What is it that drove a man knocked down so many times to get back up again? After thinking for a second, Hill lists a couple of reasons: He felt he could still compete. He had unfinished business. Then he stops, and a grin creeps across his face. "But the main thing is, I just love to play," he says. "I'm sure when I'm retired many years from now, I'll be playing at the YMCA. I just love basketball."
And there you have it, that most refreshing of motivations in today's NBA: a player doing something purely for love.
A great story indeed.
"Think of what he did before he even got to Orlando--
that's a great career for a lot of guys," says Abdur-Rahim. "A lot of people WOULD HAVE PACKED IT IN."
While Hill claims he DOESN'T THINK ABOUT HIS INJURY during games, G.M. Weisbrod admits that "my cellphone rings whenever he makes a grimace on TV."
Photograph by Bob Rosato
THE HANG OF IT
Hill is still learning to elevate again, but he has quickly regained his scoring touch.
DAVID BERGMAN/MIAMI HERALD/AP
Hill hobbled through a 2000 playoff game with Detroit, little knowing that the injury would leave his leg disfigured.
GARY BOGDON (INSET)
[See caption above.]
JULIAN GONZALEZ/DETROIT FREE PRESS (FAR LEFT); TINA FINEBERG/AP
Hill struck gold at the Atlanta Games in 1996, then married gold-selling R&B singer Tamia three years later.